From Sunderland, to Iceland, and back: Emma Kelly on her footballing journey and big Wearside ambitions

Returning to Sunderland has felt like 'coming home' for Emma Kelly.

Friday, 1st October 2021, 12:30 pm
Emma Kelly in action against Lewes last weekend

It's a club she knows well, and a group of players and staff who have welcomed her back with 'open arms'.

One thing, though, has been a little disorientating.

"I don't know if it's a good or a bad thing but I feel like a veteran," she tells The Echo, laughing.

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"I'm only in my mid-twenties!"

Kelly has already a rich and varied career, and in a young group that experience is already proving vital.

Her experience of professional football at the top level was undoubtedly one of the key reasons Mel Reay made her an important addition this summer.

Kelly started her career in red-and-white, part of the group that won promotion to the Super League.

But that was just the start of the winding road back home, via Birmingham City and most notably IBV, one of Iceland's premier clubs.

"The stage I was at, I was at university and I was finding it hard to balance the two [Sunderland career]," Kelly explains.

"I felt I needed to prioritise my uni work at the time.

"So when that finished and I'd left Sunderland I just saw it as an opportunity to venture abroad. There are a lot of players who had been abroad and they said it's an experience you need to do. It opens up a lot of doors and I wanted to come back to the Super League eventually.

"So it was just a really good stepping stone for me to get into professional football. It was a great experience, probably one of the highlights of my career so far."

A spell at Birmingham was, as Kelly puts it, a 'rollercoaster'.

First there was COVID, essentially writing off the first half of her contract. Then came a myriad of off-pitch challenges for the club as a whole, and an escape from relegation that few had anticipated.

There was much to learn in that, both from the mental challenges of battling the drop, and from the calibre of opponent faced.

So it's little wonder that Kelly has assumed an important role in Reay's side, moving into midfield where she has been operating as the team's anchor.

"It's been a while since I've played in central midfield to be fair but it's always been a position that I preferred," she explains.

"I like being in the middle of the pitch and getting on the ball a lot, I feel like previously when I've played as a winger, sometimes it can be easy to drift in and out of games because if it's not coming down your side, you're not seeing much of the ball.

"I think I'm at my best when I'm able to get hold of the ball a lot, having to be alert all the time.

"Having that sort of holding role here at Sunderland is working well, I think.

"It's getting me a lot of minutes on the board as well, which is definitely what I needed."

Kelly's presence has helped Neve Herron make an exciting start to the campaign after her own switch into midfield, their partnership one of a few that has underpinned the unbeaten start to the Championship season.

Kelly says Herron is 'excellent', the teenager set for a bright future in the game.

She highlights the talent coming through in Reay's group, one that will hopefully grow alongside the club.

Kelly signed a one-year deal this summer and the focus is unmistakably on the games ahead.

The long-term goals, for Kelly and many of her team-mates, are nevertheless clear.

"My main drive right now is performing week in, week out and passing on any experience that can be helpful to the younger players," Kelly says.

"Of course looking forward, this is my home area and I'd love to stay here.

"For Sunderland to go full time again and to play professional football is a big aspiration. I think it's a short-term career and you can only play for some many years, so it's something

I'd like to continue for as long as I can before I head on to a different career pathway.

"It does feel like an exciting time for the club.

"It's looking positive across the whole club at the moment and I think it is a big aspiration for the entire club to try and get the women's side full time.

"Speaking to a lot of the players, a lot of them are still very young and want at some stage to get into full-time football.

"Providing that opportunity in the North East would be massive, because at the moment those chances are more in the Midlands and down South.

"Realistically up here you only have Durham and Sunderland competing at this level.

"It's exciting to be a part of it here at the moment.

"There's so much talent coming through now, with so much potential."

First up, though, is a tough test at Bristol City.

Relegated from the Super League last season they have made an indifferent start to the campaign, but Kelly says there is not even a hint of complacency on Sunderland's part.

"We won't look at other results and be complacent," she says.

"You just have to look at the Championship this season, everyone is beating everyone.

"On a personal note that's another reason I thought this was an exciting move. It's going to be very competitive because a lot of teams are on a similar level. In the Super League, here's a bit more of a division.

"Bristol City have recently been in the Super League, have some players who have played at that level which is really important. They'll be a strong team and we've done our analysis on that.

"We'll go into it very level-headed because as a group, we weren't too happy with our performance last week and so there's a lot to improve on."

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